Storytelling in the 4th Industrial Revolution

As PowerPoint celebrates its 30-year anniversary, it occurred to me how immured we are by its impact in organisations. The ability to bulletise even the most complex ideas has changed the way ideas are transferred and using a PowerPoint deck to communicate everything of importance within an organisation represents the nadir of human connection. PowerPoint provides the illusion of engagement. Less-is-more is the mantra regarding a PowerPoint deck but invariably less becomes less.

A story with universal themes, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.

A story with universal themes, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is the best-selling book series in history.

I had a manager once who was exacting and thoughtful and just the right amount of demanding, which were all wonderful characteristics of a leader. We thrived under his leadership. But he did have one annoying characteristic and that was to ask that any proposal we put together for him be written in a document, rather than a PowerPoint deck. Our recently acquired, and now wired-in behaviour, to summarise our arguments and proposals into a set of PowerPoint slides, felt much more efficient than the long-winded and frankly tedious exercise of actually thinking and then putting those thoughts into prose. 

While we all acknowledged that there was something rather wonderful about discussing an idea with real sentences as supporting material, it has taken me years to realise that what felt inefficient was in fact very effective. I still reference some of these documents and suspect that a PowerPoint deck would be much more difficult to understand without the accompanying context.

Last week I had the joy of facilitating an afternoon with a group of HR leaders who are actively engaged in improving the use of storytelling in their business. What struck me about the afternoon was just how engaging and energising it is to communicate using stories. How much richer our organisations would be if the confidence of assembling a PowerPoint deck was replaced by a confidence in putting a compelling story together. 

Of course there is an inherent paradox in teaching people to tell stories—storytelling is one of the most human things we do. Everyone is a storyteller. In every culture, in every part of the world, people gather around in groups and tell stories. Stories affirm that our lives have meaning and that we are like other people. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories—often about other people. Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Robin Dunbar found that stories have evolutionary utility and that social topics, especially gossip, account for 65 per cent of all conversations in public places. 

Having only worked in organisations for 20 years, I am in no position to comment on a pre-PowerPoint world but my suspicion is that people had to work that bit harder to engage and influence without the back up of an interesting and often-entertaining slide. I think of the hours that I have spent in deep frustration beautifying slides when all that mind power could have gone into crafting a much more effective yarn. The good news is of course that the benefits of organisational storytelling are being increasingly recognised. Storytelling helps organisations unravel complexity by explaining the context and, crucially, the why. The same manager of the document fame used to say that ‘context is everything’. A good story helps to frame this context. Stories create a personal connection between the storyteller and listener that also allow the listener to imagine future possibilities. Stories really do make concepts and data more memorable. In short, people remember the stories that have been told rather than the slides they have been shown. 

The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) will require organisations to be even more human. Well-told stories will be at the heart of this. As we stand on the edge of this new technological revolution, everything that we know about the way we live, work, and relate to one another will change. Empathy, connection, creativity, cross-cultural understanding and collaboration will be at the core of what we will need to do to remain relevant (and happy). The thread that connects all of these capabilities—storytelling. Shared stories are a way for people to feel that they have a collective purpose, a coherent grasp of their world and a way to articulate universal meaning. 

I was recently introduced to the epic story of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest story. The familiarity and universality of the story felt familiar but contextually different. And this is what sits at the heart of storytelling. The real reason that we tell stories again and again is because we want to be a part of a shared history—when what we know is unstable and how our world works erratic, stories that connect us to the most human of experiences provides an anchor point from which we can navigate all that the 4IR will throw our way.

Sam Rockey

Doing the right thing (even when no-one is watching)

There was an absolute tweet storm yesterday when the BBC’s gender pay gap was revealed. Two sides of the argument emerged: the first pointed out that the gender pay gap had been on the conversational table since 1946 and that there was no justifiable reason why women and men, in the same job, should be paid differently. 

Jane Garvey, the BBC radio presenter, wrote on Twitter “I’m looking forward to presenting BBC Woman’s Hour today. We’ll be discussing #genderpaygap. As we’ve done since 1946. Going well, isn’t it?”. The counter argument took a more individualised approach arguing that the likes of Gary Lineker deserved to be paid more because of his illustrious past- and current pulling power. In other words, things were more complex, harder to calibrate, less binary.

Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, describes his commitment to closing the gender pay gap at the BBC in the  Guardian  (19th July, 2017), after the salaries of anyone earning over £150,000 were made public.

Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, describes his commitment to closing the gender pay gap at the BBC in the Guardian (19th July, 2017), after the salaries of anyone earning over £150,000 were made public.

Either way the BBC came out of the day bruised. Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, went into damage control mode by stating that he felt “reinvigorated in one of the things I really believe, which is by getting by 2020 equality on the air between men and women and in pay as well”.
Doing the right thing for the wrong reason
A more cynical person than I might ask whether he would have come out so strongly if the BBC hadn’t had to share this data? Newspapers are littered with articles about companies who do the right thing only AFTER they have been exposed for doing the wrong thing. The fear of getting caught surely shouldn’t be the motivator for being fair to employees, for treating consumers well, for being conscious of the environmental damage that can be done and by looking at a contribution beyond what is expected by shareholders?
An organisational conscience
An organisational conscience should be driving the right decisions even if there is little chance that any special kudos follows. But what is an organisational conscience? Are there some people in an organisation that have a greater conscience than others? How do leaders nurture and build an organisational conscience to do the right thing? Of course, we all have different versions of what the right thing is but at the heart of the right thing might be something along the lines of fairness and equality, of inclusion rather than exclusion, of doing no harm to consumers, to the environment, to employees, and in this case, to women.
An organisational conscience certainly doesn’t evolve fully formed.
As the wonderful Rebecca Solnit describes it :
“Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act...It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same.”
Being an adult
The most troubling part of being an adult in the world is the realisation of the fact that there is no one person in charge who will do the right thing, make the right decisions, lead the world into the right place. It is up to all of us in small and large ways. Organisations need to design in ‘conscience building’—design in ways to check and then check again so that institutions like the beloved BBC don’t end up being recognised for one thing: saying the right things, only when they were caught out doing the wrong thing.
Sam Rockey